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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Friday, October 16, 2009

Essay - The Collider, the Particle and a Theory About Fate - NYTimes.com

Essay - The Collider, the Particle and a Theory About Fate - NYTimes.com

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Rehearsing for the Apocalypse

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“Why wait till 1980?...Prepare now for the end of civilisation. Rehearse for the apocalypse...”

It was October 1974. I was on the bus to school as it trundled slowly along the back road from Gelston to Kirkcudbright, stopping to pick up kids from each farm road end and backing up to let the milk tanker get past. There was some giggling and guffawing going on as a magazine was passed around. It came to me and my jaw dropped. Not because of the rude pics -like Rupert Bear with a willy- but because I realised what it was. 'It' was the infamous 'Schoolkids' edition of OZ.

The Schoolkids OZ came out in May 1970 and was immediately seized as an 'obscene publication' under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act. In 1971, the editors of Oz – Richard Neville, Felix Dennis and Jim Anderson- were put on trial, found guilty and sentenced to 15 months in prison. Hawkwind and the Pink Fairies played benefit gigs for defendants and the trial came to symbolise the 'end of the sixties', the end of the counterculture. As Germaine Greer put it :

"Before repressive tolerance became a tactic of the past, Oz could fool itself and its readers that, for some people at least, the alternative society already existed. Instead of developing a political analysis of the state we live in, instead of undertaking the patient and unsparing job of education which must precede even a pre-revolutionary situation, Oz behaved as though the revolution had already happened."

I knew about the Schoolkids OZ from reading Richard Neville's book Playpower, and through the Hawkwind/Fairies connection. But I never expected to see a copy. It existed as myth, not a reality. Yet, four years on here it was, tattered and laughed over, soon to be thrown away, a festering flower tossed into the dustbin of history. So I saved it. I kept it for about ten years until I 'loaned' it to...? Tom Vague?? and it vanished once more. The memory has faded, but the “Rehearse the Apocalypse” page remains embedded in my recollections.

The future – the '80s' as an ecological disaster and the end of civilisation - meshed with the apocalyptic feel of punk in the late seventies. And as 1980 rolled around, I was in London writing for a punk equivalent to OZ – Kill Your Pet Puppy- expecting at worst a nuclear holocaust, at least a revolutionary class war.

Now it is nearly 40 years since Schoolkids OZ and 30 years since KYPP. The apocalypse is still 'in rehearsal'. Was I misled, did I buy a false future?

Ludwig Wittgenstein:... Think of the case of the Liar. It is very queer in a way that this should have puzzled anyone — much more extraordinary than you might think... Because the thing works like this: if a man says 'I am lying' we say that it follows that he is not lying, from which it follows that he is lying and so on. Well, so what? You can go on like that until you are black in the face. Why not? It doesn't matter. ...it is just a useless language-game, and why should anyone be excited?
Alan Turing: What puzzles one is that one usually uses a contradiction as a criterion for having done something wrong. But in this case one cannot find anything done wrong.
W: Yes — and more: nothing has been done wrong, ... where will the harm come?
T: The real harm will not come in unless there is an application, in which a bridge may fall down or something of that sort.
W: ... The question is: Why are people afraid of contradictions? It is easy to understand why they should be afraid of contradictions, etc., outside mathematics. The question is: Why should they be afraid of contradictions inside mathematics? Turing says, 'Because something may go wrong with the application.' But nothing need go wrong. And if something does go wrong — if the bridge breaks down — then your mistake was of the kind of using a wrong natural law. ...
T: You cannot be confident about applying your calculus until you know that there are no hidden contradictions in it.
W: There seems to me an enormous mistake there. ... Suppose I convince Rhees of the paradox of the Liar, and he says, 'I lie, therefore I do not lie, therefore I lie and I do not lie, therefore we have a contradiction, therefore 2 x 2 = 369.' Well, we should not call this 'multiplication,' that is all...
T: Although you do not know that the bridge will fall if there are no contradictions, yet it is almost certain that if there are contradictions it will go wrong somewhere.
W: But nothing has ever gone wrong that way yet...

[From http://www.turing.org.uk/philosophy/ex4.html ]

Applied to human social structures rather than bridges, Alan Turing's suggestion that if there are contradictions 'it will go wrong somewhere' is what Karl Marx took from Georg Hegel's version of history as the ascent of reason. Hegel saw history as a dynamic process driven by reason's need to resolve contradictions (oppositions, tensions). For Hegel, it was a struggle of ideas – but ideas which took on the form of (gave rise to) social and physical structures. Thus the contradictions within the Roman Empire led to its collapse under pressure from the 'barbarians', but Roman influence on the barbarians created contradictions which led to the emergence of medieval feudalism which gave rise to the Renaissance...then the Enlightenment and the French Revolution...the shock waves of which were directly experienced (via Napoleon's army at the battle of Jena in October 1806) by Hegel himself.

Hegel (possibly) hoped that the age of reason would finally blossom in an enlightened 'rational state' – Prussia in Germany, but by the time of his death in 1831 he was aware that developments in 'England' (the UK/ Britain) might indicate a further complication/ contradiction. [Hegel's last piece of writing was on the English Reform Bill of 1831]

By the 1840s, Prussia's enlightened moment had passed and a reactionary regime was in power. Karl Marx, inspired by Friedrich Engel's knowledge of the condition of the working classes in England [Manchester] realised that there was a further contradiction to be resolved, the one created by the advent and rapid global expansion of industrial capitalism. [To be continued]